How The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Threatens Egypt As We Know It
The Nile is the longest river on earth, it streams for well over 6,000km and chops through 11 countries birthing life wherever it flows. The beating heart for Egyptians modern to ancient, the Nile is simply more than a water source. It is home and sanctuary to millions of our animal comrades and according to natural law, dominion to no-one.
Egypt’s Nile is the combined rivers of the White Nile which begins in Tanzania and the Blue Nile which begins in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is often referred to as Africa’s water tower given it’s heightened elevation.
Of the eventual river which flows through Egypt, Ethiopia’s Blue Nile contributes significantly more than Tanzania’s White. And it is for this reason the drama and controversy unravel.
Ethiopia has built the 6th largest dam in the world on its border with Sudan. All the water from this dam is tapped from the Blue Nile and since the Blue Nile is the primary funnel into the Egyptian Nile this dam is essentially a faucet on Egypt’s water supply… and Ethiopia holds the keys.
What Is The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (among the more bizarre 3rd-word additions) is the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa. In 2011, a joint project was announced with China to build the dam and construction finished in 2020. On 31 March 2011, a day after the project was made public, a US$4.8 billion contract was awarded without competitive bidding to Italian company Salini Impregilo – classic developing economy shadiness. Things smell a bit economic hitman-y to me.
The dam sits on the border with Sudan and although the dam ensures water security during periods of drought the primary motivation for constructing this dam is economic. The electricity Ethiopia will be able to generate from the construction of this dam is measured at a 6.45-gigawatt capacity. The GERD, as it is otherwise known, is going to yield cheap electricity for Sudan and heighten Ethiopia’s geopolitical significance in the region. Economic development begins and ends with non-extractive access to cheap energy.
Controversy Surrounding The GERD – Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
The controversy surrounding the GERD – Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, begins and ends with Egyptian water security and the threat this piece of infrastructure poses upon it.
To put it both very short and very simple. This dam works through the accumulation (filling) of water into a resoiver (dam) which can then be released downstream via tight controls in order to move the electricity-generating turbines. NOT A BIG DEAL on the surface of things, because Egypt is still getting their water, right?
WRONG – It is in the filling process of the dam where the controversy lay. The GERD will supposedly take anywhere from 5 to 15 years to fill, and the implications of this are such that although Egypt’s Nile will still flow, the girth of its stream will be significantly corrupted. There are many predictions for the downstream effects a thinner Nile will have on Egypt’s agriculture. Predictions are being thrown around correlating the time it takes to fill the dam with x% of agricultural yield loss, predictions extrapolating the movement of people along some of the more insecure domestic regions within Egypt, and other such second and third-order effects which rarely play out as anticipated. Although these predictions do carry weight, you guys know I place very little faith in these types of predictions and think they are more a statistical style of bullying rather the stated fact they claim to be.
But it is certainly true that anything you do at the top of the Nile will have effects downstream. This is obvious, it is in predicting the exact effects which is less so.
The Real Threat
African nations are prone to droughts (surprise, surprise), and it is in my estimation this is the real threat the GERD poses.
What happens when Ethiopia’s water security becomes threatened by drought? Will they contunie to let the GERD flow in accordance to their agreement with Egypt, or will they close the faucet and secure freshwater for their exploding population? It is very much a question of geopolitics but I think history proves that when ones own people are being threatened, it is the non-domestic agenda that gets chopped first.
Egypt has a very powerful military, they are currently stronger and larger than Ethiopia, but Ethiopia is a faster-growing country. They are currently 96 million population and have an increasing standard of living relative to Egypt. Egypt wants a fixed amount of water constantly released from the dam while Ethiopia wants the flexibility to deal with drought years.
This is the mess of the negotiation, and even though both sides interests are plain as day and on the table, no agreement has yet to be confirmed.
Ethiopia is making a power play in Africa, this piece of infrastructure is being sold through internal propaganda (though not entirely wrong) as Ethiopia’s route to the very top of the African power ladder. I have nothing but suspicion for making this claim, but I suspect there is a potential China debt diplomacy play underfoot as well.
China is Ethiopia’s biggest trading partner. It’s also estimated to have provided more than $16 billion of loans to the Horn of Africa nation, including a $1.2 billion credit to build transmission lines that will link to the plant. The electricity will help power a Chinese-funded railway that connects landlocked Ethiopia to ports in neighbouring Djibouti.
Stability in the region is the most important goal from an international perspective. And for this to be achieved it requires the completion of the dam and the signing of guarantees of constant water flow to appease the Egyptians.
Egypt has the US on its side while Ethiopia has China (financier).
These interests have yet to exert themselves but certainly bubble and hover beneath the surface.
Current State Of Affairs
Although no final agreements have been met, the dam started to be filled in July 2020. It is estimated this will take between 5 and 15 years to fill completely.
For now, the time difference depends on talks between the stakeholder nations. The world watches with interest.
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